Do you suck…

the life out of the room?!

My husband and I watched the first season of What We Do in the Shadows, a documentary style television show like The Office…but with vampires.  It’s a ridiculous and hysterical show, with characters that I simultaneously love and hate.  One character that brought on that love-hate feeling the most was an energy vampire named Colin Robinson.  He looks like a normal human being, can go out in the daylight, and sucks the life out of people with his dull, rambling stories.  Colin Robinson (the other vampires tend to use his full name) lurks around people’s cubicles, waiting to bore them with trivial facts and mundane details of his life.  You can see people slowly going limp as he works his magic.  

This character is hysterical because we all can relate to what it’s like to be around energy vampires, those people in our lives who drain all of our energy by their presence.  These people often show no concern for how much of your time they take up.  They bore you with the minutiae of their lives or worse, they do nothing but complain or gossip.  (I know images of your own energy vampires are flashing in your mind, right now.  You may even be looking for the nearest exit.)  

While the show makes light of energy vampires, the reality is that being around people like this is exhausting.  Listening to them numbs our brains.  Coming up with excuses to get out of conversations with them drains our reserves of creativity.  We may try to avoid them completely.  In moments of desperation (or maniacal genius) we divert their attention to someone else in the room, then make a mad dash for the door. 

I used to work closely with an energy vampire and there was no way to avoid him. I tried to counter his negativity with my own optimism in the hopes that he’d change his vampirous ways.  Instead, things turned out just like the scenes in the show–me slumped, face down on my keyboard and him continuing to ramble on despite my showing no signs of life.  

I’ll admit, I’ve also had moments of being the energy vampire, especially during periods of my life when I was unhappy or stressed to the max.  We all need connection to fuel us.  In low points of our lives, we may only have accounts of our trip to the grocery store or stories about other people as talking points.  When we’re hyper focused on what is wrong around us, it can be impossible to talk about anything else. If it matters to us, we watch for cues that we’re sucking the life out of the room and change our focus.  

I remember learning in high school physics class that energy can not be created or destroyed–the law of conservation of energy.  I’m pretty sure that the principle is only based on the energy of objects at rest or in motion (apologies to all physicists and physics teachers out there if I muddled that up).  In my mind, however, the same rule applies to the emotional energy that we put out in the world. When we put out negative energy through our griping, complaining and gossiping, people pick it up and carry that energy with them.  They may pass along the same negative energy, no longer having the will to fight it.  Or they may think of those conversations minutes, days, even years later and succumb to the same sense of depletion.

We can’t expect to be perfect.  We’ll slip into negativity at times, and there will be moments when we do need to voice our frustrations.  The key is paying attention to whether it’s our habit to put out negative energy and drain others in doing so.  We get to choose what energy we put into the world.  Personally, I’d like to be someone that gives off energy that fuels people.  My magic-of-choice is showing gratitude, recognizing people for their admirable qualities, and sharing stories of hope.

Should you choose to continue your vampirous ways, that’s your choice.  I just hope you’re prepared to see people pretending to take phone calls, throwing themselves into the nearest elevator, or just flat out turning and running away from you.  Because, no one needs that energy.

Why you should read Atomic Habits

One of my programs is called “Books & Belonging.”  It’s a book group for like-hearted leaders and game changers–people who want to make a positive impact on the world and who know that change starts with our own personal growth.  Here is a quick description of an upcoming book selection and why it is worth a read:

Book: Atomic Habits by James Clear

Book Summary:  Early into Atomic Habits, James Clear gives credit to researchers who have studied human behavior and habits, and highlights Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit.  Rather than sharing narratives and research however, James Clear provides clear, simple strategies that anyone can use to develop new habits or break old habits.

Why It’s Recommended Reading:  Anyone looking to be an impactful leader or to be more effective in leading their own lives needs to consider the role their personal habits have in their current reality.  In order to align our actions with our beliefs, we need to be aware of habits that keep us out of alignment and know how to make changes that bring us into alignment.  Atomic Habits makes this a clear process that makes us more likely to succeed.

A Few Takeaways from the Book:

  • Our identity plays a huge role in our habits.  For instance, when someone wants to quit smoking but still considers themselves a smoker, they reinforce the habit they are trying to break by identifying with smoking.  Even saying you are trying to quit smoking sends signals to your brain that you are still attached to that habit.  Changing our thoughts and words to align with who we want to become (I’m not a smoker), increases our ability to behave in new ways.
  • There are four stages involved in habits–the cue, the craving, the response, and the reward.  Building new habits requires us to address all four stages.  Breaking old habits first requires us to recognize those same stages.
  • While building/breaking habits often seems daunting, the benefit is that once they are formed we free up our brain’s ability to focus on other things.  The strategies in this book make habit formation less daunting.

If you have a picture in your mind of who you want to be, you can start living in that identity by creating the right habits now.  

Want to purchase Atomic Habits and support a local book store? Check out Bookshop.org

Sticks & Stones

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  Do we still teach this terrible chant to kids?  While well-intentioned, my experience has taught me that words often hurt more deeply and more permanently than a broken bone.  Not only have I experienced and witnessed the wounds that words leave behind, I’ve actually fought with sticks…literally!  No, I wasn’t the kid chasing other kids around my neighborhood wielding a tree branch.  I spent several years practicing eskrima, a Filipino martial art that uses solid sticks as weapons.  Let me tell you first-hand that the blisters, welts, and bruises those sticks left behind eventually healed and faded.  However, words thrown my way from as far back as childhood still ache inside my heart.

Words can have an impact that shapes people in both positive and negative ways.  Hurtful words can have long-lasting, damaging effects.  The harsh, critical language parents use towards their children can shape their identity, sense of security, and sense of self-worth.  For adolescents still learning how to manage their emotions and trying to fit in, words are typically the catalyst for physical fights with peers.  These same children grow up to become adults who perpetuate the cycle, not recognizing how language has shaped their beliefs and behaviors.  In today’s political climate, we see full grown adults using words to demean their opponents.  Worse still, we see people in powerful positions throwing words around haphazardly with little regard for how those words land, what message they send, and the call to action of those who trust in their leadership.

Communication is not my strong suit.  It takes me a long time to craft my messages, a painstaking process that I don’t enjoy.  Still, I know that in order for my messages to have any chance of landing in the way I intend, I have to do the work.  So much of leadership is in how we communicate.  It’s why some leaders can inspire hope regardless of their track record of success, and why others with the potential to do great work may never get enough people to believe in them.

There is another side to communication–how we receive messages.  This is something I believe I’ve managed well in my career.  Whenever you work with a lot of people or are in a position of authority, you are likely to encounter people expressing strong emotions.  (That’s my nice way of saying people will blame, yell, demean, and curse at you whether you deserve it or not.) In those situations it helped me to remember that their words were a manifestation of caring about someone or something deeply.  I understood that giving people the space to share and hearing them fully was the only path forward.  And, I knew that managing my own emotions was necessary if we were going to resolve the issues at hand.  Still, the weight of those words stuck with me and there were many days I went home with barely enough energy to climb into bed.

While words may not have the power to break our bones, they can cut us to the core and leave our hearts tattered and bare.  We all need to recognize the power of words and understand the underlying emotions that fuel those words.  Before speaking, we can pause and consider our intent.  Before reacting, we can look at others with compassion and connect with their humanity.  And at the end of the day, we can stop and recognize how words have impacted us–affirming that our behaviors match our beliefs, bringing to light damage we have done, maybe even cutting us down in ways that were unwarranted.  We can recognize that we are human.  We can use the words that brought us joy as fuel.  We can care for the wounds that words have left on our heart.  And, we can choose our words with care tomorrow.

Why you should read Atlas of the Heart

One of my programs is called “Books & Belonging.”  It’s a book group for like-hearted leaders and game changers–people who want to make a positive impact on the world and who know that change starts with our own personal growth.  Here is a quick description of one of the group’s book selections and why it is worth a read:

Book: Atlas of the Heart by Brene Brown

Book Summary:  Brene Brown uses her research on emotions to provide a “map” of our common human experience.  With over 80 emotions and experiences defined, Atlas of the Heart helps readers explore the roots of their emotions and understand how having the language to explore these depths allows us to connect with others in meaningful ways.

Why It’s Recommended Reading:  Success as a leader or a game-changer lies in our ability to connect with others.  True connection stems from shared human experiences and emotions.  Yet, many leaders do not delve deep into their own emotions for a variety of reasons like the fear of being seen as weak, feeling pressed to move on to the next task, or a belief that leaders must be stoic.  Atlas of the Heart is a great tool to help people explore the nuances of different emotions so that they can better connect to themselves and others.

A Few Takeaways from the Book:

  • We know the importance of developing trust as leaders, but we often neglect the importance of developing our own self-trust.  And, self-trust is easily destroyed when we make mistakes or feel that we’ve failed. How might others sense your lack of self-trust?
  • Anger often masks other feelings such as shame, guilt, worry, and hurt.  When we are approached by others expressing anger, or when we feel anger ourselves, we should stop and consider what other feelings may be hiding beneath the surface. What consequences could you have avoided by taking a more compassionate approach to anger?
  • There is a Buddhist concept of near enemies and far enemies of connection.  Far enemies are the opposite of connecting with people.  For example, the far enemy of compassion would be cruelty or distancing yourself from someone.  Near enemies seem similar to connection on the surface, but actually undermine true connection.  The near enemy of compassion is showing pity or comparing your own suffering to someone suffering in the moment.  Which of your relations have suffered by failing to connect the way you intended?

If you value the role of your relationships in living your purpose, ask yourself what’s possible if you explore your emotions more deeply.

Finding an Alternative to Quiet Quitting

Back when I was a teacher, the teachers’ union organized a movement called “Work to Rule” to demonstrate our collective stance that teachers deserved better pay.  Every time negotiations were not going the way our union wanted, they asked teachers to do only what our contract stated and only during our required work hours.  Teachers would gather outside their schools in the morning, walk in together at the official start of the day, and leave together at the official end of the day without taking work home.  Essentially, it was a united and more explicit form of “quiet quitting,” a hot topic in discussions around leadership and the workforce these days.  

If you’re not familiar with the phrase, quiet quitting is essentially an act of disengagement in the workplace.  Rather than subscribing to the hustle culture–working beyond your duty hours, overextending yourself to meet unrealistic expectations, etc.–people are setting aside the idea of going above and beyond.  In some scenarios, people are doing the bare minimum required of their roles; nothing beyond what is explicitly stated as their responsibility or what can be completed during their work hours.  In other scenarios, people are showing up to work physically while checking out mentally and emotionally.

The thing is, this movement isn’t just about success at work.  Quiet quitting is a symptom of a complex issue.  Factor out the extremes–people who are unmotivated, apathetic, and only work for a paycheck, and those who  define success in life as success at work.  What you’re left with is a lot of people who care about making a contribution, who want to do good work, AND who also define themselves by who they are and what they do outside of the workplace.  You’re left with people who feel forced to choose between overexertion and valuing themselves.

No matter how we define success for ourselves, most of us want to feel engaged in and excited by the work that pays our bills.  At the very least, we want to feel valued as an employee and as a person.  Before succumbing to the symptom of quiet quitting, getting clear about your options and what’s at the heart of your frustrations will lead you to greater fulfillment in the long run.  

Setting Standards for Self-Care

I remember being the lone person standing at a meeting for new assistant principals, indicating that I was the only person who was answering yes to a question that was asked.  It felt awkward and uncomfortable as I glanced around the room and saw the looks on my colleagues’ faces.  Of course, there were a few people who just didn’t seem to care.  A few looked pleased, some looked amused, and there were quite a few that looked downright spiteful.

The facilitator was reading through a list of tasks and we were supposed to stand if we were doing them regularly.  The tasks were things like staying late at work several times a week, skipping lunch, mediating disputes between students, and handling conflicts between parents and teachers.  Most of us were continually standing up for each task, then sitting back down waiting for the next item to be read aloud.  But when the facilitator asked if we were exercising at least twice a week, I was the only person that stood.  I muttered something about not having kids, half excuse/half apology that I thought should make it more acceptable for me to have this luxury, before trying to disappear into my chair.  

The point the facilitator was trying to make was that our jobs were difficult and that we needed to take care of ourselves.  But there was an unspoken message of our culture that was understood by everyone.  Simply asking the last question about exercising indicated an expectation that few people would stand up.  It indicated that the social norm for school administrators was to run themselves ragged every day.  My guilt for being the lone person standing indicated that I had somehow broken that norm, as did the expressions on people’s faces.

Many organizations have been preaching the importance of self-care for years, but their actions and expectations demonstrated that they are only paying lip service to a trendy topic.  When the pandemic hit, the shared struggles of adjusting to a virtual environment, caring for family members, and living with uncertainty and fear turned self-care from a trend to a dire need.  Organizations addressed the need, some more successfully than others.  Then, as we’ve returned to a more “normal” state, many have also returned to making statements of self-care rather than truly demonstrating support for self-care.

Self-care is something I’ve always claimed as a priority for myself and for others, but looking back on my time as a school leader I know I was guilty of perpetuating an unhealthy culture.  As leaders, our actions and words always have intended and unintended consequences.  If you truly care about the wellbeing of your team, consider what you may be doing that goes against a message of self-care.

  • Do you send emails after work hours or on the weekend?  I used to tell my team not to respond to emails I sent after hours, but it didn’t matter.  Many still felt compelled to respond or at least to read the message.  I was setting the example that it’s ok for work to consume us at all hours, and they were following my example.
  • Do you work while on vacation?  My team would encourage me to turn everything off before I’d go away.  My compromise was that I would only check emails for an hour each morning.  My intention was to make sure they didn’t feel abandoned (and also to keep from having an overwhelming number of emails when I returned to work).  Instead, I sent the message that leaders don’t really need a break.  I may have even sent the message to some that I didn’t trust them to manage without me.  
  • Do you publicly praise people who work beyond their duty hours, skip meals, or sacrifice other aspects of their self-care for the company?  Don’t get me wrong, we should acknowledge and appreciate people who care enough to go the extra mile.  Unfortunately, making a big deal can make those who aren’t going to the same extremes feel underappreciated and blurs the lines for much needed boundaries.
  • Do you preach self-care to employees rather than giving them the time, space, and flexibility to do what’s best for them?  Mandatory professional development on ways to practice self-care is almost insulting.  People don’t need to be told what to do.  They need to be supported in doing what they need.

One of the worst things leaders can do for a culture is to uphold the stereotype of the indestructible leader.  We can be strong, and still need time to rejuvenate, team members that we can lean on, and space to feel what we feel.  Now more than ever, people need leaders who set new standards in support of self-care.  What will you do starting today?

Roadblocks to Possibilities

The August selection for Books & Belonging (a program for creating community between people developing their leadership skills) is Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant.  I’m a fan of his podcasts.  I’m also a firm believer that people (especially leaders) should never fool themselves into thinking they know everything, and should be lifelong learners.  Grant does a phenomenal job of explaining the pitfalls of our own thinking, even those of us who consider ourselves to be open-minded and eager to learn.  

One of the ideas he explores is the tendency for humans to think in polarizing ways.  I’ve heard this explained before as our brains being lazy, looking for the easiest way to categorize information and leading us to think in binary terms–right/wrong, positive/negative, good/bad.  As I read how Grant connected this idea to creating communities in which rethinking is part of the culture, I started to think about workplace structures and norms that foster binary thinking and an us-versus-them mentality within organizations.

The first thing that jumped to my mind was evaluation systems.  As a former school administrator, I’ve conducted numerous teacher evaluations.  There was a rubric designed to give teachers and instructional leaders a clear, standardized way of talking about the qualities of effective instruction.  It makes sense–without clearly articulating expectations for instruction, how could we expect all of our teachers to deliver the type of instruction that we know leads to student achievement?  The problem was that by being tied to employee ratings, the rubric drew more of a divide between teachers and administrators, rather than creating a collaborative culture.  It didn’t matter if my overall impression of a teacher’s instruction was positive, or that I attempted to use the process as a way to highlight strengths and narrow in on one or two areas for growth that would make them even stronger.  And, it didn’t matter if there were opportunities for more feedback, coaching, or professional development.  For most teachers, what mattered was how many checkboxes they received in each of the categories from ineffective to highly effective.  What mattered was that they were being judged.

So, how are school districts or other organizations supposed to have clear, objective expectations for success while also creating learning communities?  The answer is, unfortunately, “it’s complicated.”  Yes, there should be clear definitions for effective instruction.  Yes, ratings should be based on performance and not left to the subjectivity of the evaluator.  AND, as Adam Grant suggests, we need to constantly take into consideration the complexities of any given situation if we want to engage with others in learning and improving.  Teachers recognize the different challenges each of their students face, whether they have a learning disability, come from unstable homes, have access to plenty of resources, or are high-performing.  No two students are exactly the same, and no two teachers for that matter.

When thinking about how to create a learning community within your own organization or team, consider this–What are the existing structures or norms that limit our thinking?  Is it the hierarchy, company policies, or the widely known opinions of those at the top?  Then ask yourself “How might I disrupt that structure in a way that can open us up to more possibilities?  You may find that all it takes is a subtle shift in your own thinking.

Healthy Boundaries

Boundaries have been a popular topic of conversation lately.  So many people have mentioned being overwhelmed and not having their own needs met.  When I ask what boundaries they need, most struggle with an answer.  They recognize the importance of boundaries, yet in a world where almost everything can be accessed with the click of a button it seems like we have trouble not responding when that click points in our direction.

I love how Jen Sincero describes boundaries in her book Badass Habits.  She explains that “having healthy boundaries means owning your actions, emotions, and needs as well as not owning the actions, emotions, and needs of others.”  Think about how many times you’ve heard people say “I need ____, but someone is always asking for more from me” or “I can’t ____ because then so-and-so will feel ____.”  How many times have you said something similar?

I do understand that there are times when boundaries seem impossible, like when you have young children or are caring for someone else who is completely dependent on you.  And I also recognize that in some professions, the expectation is for employees to be on call 24-7 (not that I agree with this practice).  I also believe that if we take some time to think about it there are ways we can begin to create healthy boundaries.  Here are a few questions to get you started:

When do you need space?  Some of us need space to think before making decisions.  Others need space when emotions are running high.  Being in tune with when you need space puts you in a better place to advocate for that need when those moments arise.

How do you use your time to restore your own energy?  Reflecting on this question will reveal not only what things you do that restore you, but also how often you do those things and what is getting in the way if you’re not.  Then you can decide what boundaries will better serve you–blocking off time on your calendar for that workout, getting into bed 15-minutes earlier to read a good book, or turning off your cell phone at dinner and leaving it off for the rest of the night.

Who are the people that drain you?  The reality is that there are people who (no matter how much you may love them) suck the life out of you!  Recognizing that as a reality, rather than chastising yourself for being rude or rationalizing why they are the way they are, gives you the chance to set boundaries for your interactions.  And yes, you may have to articulate those boundaries which can be tricky.  (I feel another blog post coming on…)

What are your own desires that don’t always serve you?  Does this sound counterintuitive to leading a whole, fulfilled life?  Well, the reality is that sometimes we are our own worst enemies.  Many of my recent conversations about boundaries also revolved around taking our strengths and talents too far.  For those of you familiar with CliftonStrengths, my Learner theme offers a prime example.  I love learning so much that I have a stack of unread books, typically read about 5 books at a time, and may not finish a single one!  Setting the boundary that I cannot buy a new book until I’ve finished at least two keeps me from getting overwhelmed by all my reading choices and makes me feel more satisfied because I am getting more out of the books that I finish.

While the word “boundaries” may conjure up the idea of limits, healthy boundaries do just the opposite.  They allow us to make sure our basic needs are met so that we can show up more fully in life.  What boundaries do you need to show up as your full self?

Photo by Ray Bilcliff on Pexels.com

Adjusting the Volume on Leadership Demands

Brene Brown’s work on leadership and vulnerability have had a tremendous impact on many of today’s leaders.  In her work, she defines leadership as “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.”  I’m grateful for how she intentionally defines leadership because I believe that’s what leadership should look like.

However, that is often not the case.  There are plenty of people in the world who still view leadership as a position of power, regardless of whether or not anyone is actually following the “leader.”  Unfortunately there are also a lot of vocal people in the world who spend their time complaining and spreading negativity, without the knowledge or experience to back them up and with plenty of followers.

Then there are leaders who fit into Brown’s definition.  They may not be in a position that affords them power, yet they are clearly leaders because of how others respond to them.  Some may have authority and positive intentions, but feel so constrained by company demands and expectations that their investment in people suffers.  I believe this is where the critical mass lies–struggling to lead in a way that aligns with their values because they are bombarded by competing voices, unclear priorities, and unreasonable demands.

So what can you do if you find yourself in this situation?  First, consider what the people you lead need in order to be successful.  The bottom line is your organization’s success depends on their ability to do the work.  Next, consider whose lead you are following.  Sometimes we need to pause before we can recognize which voices are leading us astray. Then, turn the volume down where needed.  While we may be bound to listen to some people because of the power they have over us or our personal ties with them, we still can make a choice of what we let in and what we don’t.  Easier said than done…and also worth the effort.

Kicking an Old Identity

I practiced martial arts for almost 20 years. At first, it was a great activity for me.  Martial arts aligned with my need to be active, my love for learning, and my appreciation for discipline and structure.  As time went on, things changed.  I plateaued–not that I couldn’t learn more, but my body just never was going to be able to do much more, especially given the limited amount of time I had to practice.  I had plenty of discipline and structure in my life thanks to that thing called “adulting.”  And, I was just in a different place in my life.  When I exercised I wanted to clear my mind, get in a good workout, and be done with it.  My learning needs were being met in other ways, and I preferred to spend my time alone or in smaller settings, rather than getting knocked around the dojang with all the hustle and bustle of flying feet.  Yet for some reason, I just kept going eventually earning a 3rd degree black belt.

I remember the day of that test.  Testing always started with each candidate having to answer questions on required knowledge–history of the art, number of movements in a pattern, explaining proper body alignment, reciting guiding principles.  After months of studying and practice I was prepared for any question that could come my way.  But then our Master asked “Why are you doing this?”

Suddenly, I was struck with panic.  I managed to spit out an answer, but in my head I kept asking myself the question over and over!  “Why AM I doing this?”  It suddenly dawned on me that I no longer had the desire to practice martial arts and that I was testing because it was just the next step in the order of things.  Now, I had 4 hours of grueling physical exertion in front of me, just to obtain something that really didn’t matter to me!

Over the next few months, I reflected on this realization but still couldn’t muster up the courage to stop.  My identity had somehow become intertwined with martial arts.  People knew me as a black belt, as a stick fighter (look up eskrima if you’re curious), as a cardio kickboxing instructor.  It wasn’t what I did; it was somehow who I was. If I quit now, who would I be?

What people know of us or believe us to be can shape our identity in ways that have no bearing on who we are internally.  It’s part of normal human behavior that happens without our awareness.  We meet a person, learn about them, and then attach a label according to what we’ve learned, regardless of whether or not that person would label themselves in the same way.   As a result, some people struggle with imposter syndrome–the internal fear of being discovered as a fraud or a phony.  And, some people try to avoid being labeled by not sharing parts of their lives or not engaging with their interests at all.  If you’ve experienced this, you know it’s not an enjoyable way to live your life.

So how do we combat this issue?  Start by taking the time to consider who you are.  What are your values?  What impact do you want to make?  What brings you joy?  Live into those things and let your actions show what really matters to you.  And listen for what really matters to others so you can know them for who they truly are.

I stopped practicing martial arts in December 2019.  I appreciate everything I learned and the relationships I formed during the almost 20 years of practice, but I appreciate even more how liberating it was to let go of an identity that no longer suited me.  What would you like to let go of?